Editorial: Midlands bus contract should be bid out sooner than later

February 3, 2013 

— LONG-TIME BUS operator Veolia Transportation has been helpful in bringing stability to the Midlands system, and it makes sense to rely on the contractor to keep buses operating in the short term, but transit officials must put the service out for bid as soon as possible.

Despite Veolia’s helpfulness, the public legitimately has been concerned that the company has provided too few details over the years about how tax dollars it receives are spent. Beyond that, this service has never been bid out; Veolia has operated the buses since they were transferred into public hands in 2002, which makes it difficult to determine whether the Midlands is getting a comparatively good deal — in quality or price.

With the bus system now poised to receive millions more annually, thanks to the passage of the penny-on-the-dollar transportation sales tax in Richland County, it is imperative that this contract be bid out sooner than later.

For sure, this community has benefitted from Veolia’s expertise and even its resources. During a particularly turbulent time roughly two years ago, the company brought in an executive director — at no expense to the public — to oversee the bus system. That manager, Bob Schneider, has done an admirable job. The company’s contract, which was to have ended during that period, was extended a year and a half. In November, the transit authority board extended it for another six months, through April. Veolia has now asked for another one-year extension.

By all means, the transit authority should retain Veolia to keep things running smoothly while it prepares to bid the contract out. But while it should take the time to do its due diligence, it shouldn’t tarry. This contract should have been bid out long ago.

As things stand, Veolia has been able to avoid providing details on how public money is spent by claiming that its financial reports are a key element of its business model and therefore proprietary and not subject to disclosure.

Despite the fact that a private company is providing this service, it is funded by public money. Basic principles of public accountability demand that there be a mechanism to ensure that money will be used in the most efficient and productive manner. Any public contract should require the disclosure of information needed to allow elected officials and the public to determine whether they are getting a good return.

Bidding the service out will give transit board members an opportunity to outline exactly what kind of public reporting is to be required. Obviously, Veolia would be free to bid on the contract. But should it be the successful bidder, it should have to adhere to a different set of financial reporting rules than it has been.

To that end, we urge the transit authority board to demand sufficient reporting so that taxpayers can determine whether their money is being spent appropriately and whether they are getting a good deal.

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